The New Faces of Polish Theatre Photography
small, The New Faces of Polish Stage Photography, 'Exodus 2.0', directed by Agnieszka Korytkowska-Mazur, photo: Bartek Warzecha, set of photographs which won a prize during the 2016 Theatre Photogr, b-warzecha-bartek-03-04.jpg
Live performance inspires photographers to create new worlds and their own interpretations of plays. Their photographs are usually separate artworks, not merely a documentation of what happens on stage. Culture.pl presents the artists who make up the new face of Polish theatre photography.
Tomasz Tyndyk is known for his acting – with the TR Warszawa Theatre, he has performed in, among others, Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Męczennicy (The Martyrs) and G.E.N., as well as Krzysztof Warlikowski’s The Dybbuk, Cleansed and Angels in America. His passion for photography, however, is just as strong. He studied at the Institute of Creative Photography in Opava, Czech Republic, which is considered one of the best and most important schools of contemporary photography in Europe.
Tyndyk’s relation with photography is multidimensional – he treats taking pictures as his personal, experimental project. His work examines the boundaries between the roles of the actor, creator and photographer as he reproduces the performance on film. As he shared during a conversation with Anka Herbut:
I was interested in finding out whether it’s possible to capture the process of the show being born and of me becoming the character. Whether I would be able to act while being a photographer. Whether I would be able to split myself up, and whether me being in the middle of the creative process would influence the photos in any way. One time, for example, I made snapshots while on stage, in front of the audience…
In February 2017, an exhibition of Tyndyk’s photographs entitled Labirynt (Labirynth) accompanied the premiere of G.E.N. in TR Warszawa Theatre. In January 2018, the artist released the album Tomek Tyndyk/Teatr, which contains his photographs shot during the rehearsals and performances of TR Warszawa’s productions from the years 2014 to 2017. These include Krystian Lupa’s Miasto Snu (City of Dreams), Krzysztof Garbaczewski’s Robert Robur and Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Nowy Theatre production (A)pollonia.
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Of this project, Tyndyk said:
The theatre sometimes shows us new ways and sometimes covers them up; it uncovers something or hides something away from us. It also does that with our selves. I wanted to capture the narrow opening between what is not accessible and what can be quickly brought to light.
The photographer’s artistic identity is also defined by his Instagram posts. Besides the familiar faces of actors, they display Tyndyk’s focus on objects and details. It is difficult to resist the impression that he is deeply interested in mystery, that which is barely visible. Maybe this is the ‘opening’ he speaks about regarding the theatre – a place where the tension between covering and uncovering, reality and magic plays an important part, allowing him to explore it.
The Labirynt exhibition was promoted by a black-and-white photograph of chairs turned towards a shining curtain, as if Tyndyk had managed to capture a moment just before or right after a show. This simple frame corresponds precisely with the liminality the photographer explores in his work.
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'Exodus 2.0', directed by Agnieszka Korytkowska-Mazur, photo: Bartek Warzecha, set of photographs which won a prize during the 2016 Theatre Photography Contest, www.bartekwarzecha.com
A graduate of the Warsaw Theatre Academy, Bartek Warzecha has worked for many Polish magazines and theatres – including the National Theatre, the Jewish Theatre, and Nowy Theatre in Warsaw, as well as Kraków’s Stary Theatre and the Dramatyczny Theatre in his hometown of Białystok.
The double role Warzecha plays is not as evident as with Tyndyk. The former graduated from an acting programme, but decided to stop pursuing it entirely. Nevertheless, he decided to work in theatre and has photographed hundreds of shows over the course of his career.
Discussing the creative nature of his profession, Warzecha said:
It’s great when theatre photography can connect its documentary and artistic aspects, instead of just serving as a raw, visual reproduction of specific scenes from a play.
For him, even thought the artist is in charge of documenting what is happening on stage, he can uncover unusual details. In 2017, he received the main award for a documentary set in the Theatre Photography Contest organised by the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute. The jury praised Warzecha for ‘the creation of an aesthetically consistent documentary sequence, thanks to a conscious use of colour and framing, presenting the air of the show and engaging the spectator’, referring to his photographs taken during Agnieszka Korytowska-Mazur’s play Exodus 2.0, performed in Białystok.
Warzecha’s set of 10 photographs resembles the creation of a new, alternate universe – one that could be non-theatrical or even supra-theatrical. The ephemeral character of theatre is suspended in snapshots that are almost film-like in their expressiveness and fluidity. It can be said that Warzecha establishes a new artistic relation with the work of another artist, thus going further than raw documentation alone.
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'Hamlet', directed by Krzysztof Garbaczewski, Narodowy Stary Theatre in Kraków, photo: Joanna Gałuszka/promotional materials
Joanna Gałuszka’s works betray a clear vision, rooted in her journalistic experience and her artistic passion. She manages to combine an archive-like reliability with subjective, detail-oriented optics. Although she is new to theatre photography, the young artist has managed to develop a consistent style that is a mixture of precise compositions and personal impressions from the theatre.
Gałuszka remains loyal to the on-stage original without sacrificing individual, creative touches. The dynamism, the movement, the emotions, the lighting, the colour and the objects – all of these elements of the theatrical universe are present in her work. In order to recreate what she believes to be the character of the scene, she can even go as far as to cut the heads of the actors out of the picture. Gałuszka often makes the set design the centrepiece of her photographs; her focus on the object and its malleability is also emblematic of her work.
The photographer’s documentations of Pustostan (The Empty Lot, a play by Agata Puszcz performed at the Polski Theatre in Bielsko-Biała) or Hamlet (directed by Krzysztof Garbaczewski at Kraków’s Stary Theatre) confirm the artist’s aesthetic sensibility. They are complete packages, allowing the viewer to see the full history of the performance.
The transparent narrativity of Gałuszka’s work goes hand-in-hand with her artistic sensibilities. She seems to intuitively understand theatre and the character of the plays, precisely reproducing their dynamism and atmosphere – both as art and as spectacle.
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His adventures in theatre began behind the scenes. Piotr Gamdzyk was a stage manager at Montownia Theatre – where, through an almost natural extension of his duties, he began to photograph the shows. His snapshots of dance are especially worth mentioning, as Gamdzyk seems to understand dynamism and motion very well. Some of his pictures present energetic, blurry silhouettes performing choreography, while others focus on precise, solidified poses and stress the most important aspects of specific scenes.
The most emblematic of Gamdzyk’s work, however, is the photograph that garnered him the top prize in the 3rd Theatre Photography Contest. The artist won the prize for ‘Theatrical Photograph of the Year’ with a behind-the-scenes photograph of a dancer preparing for the dress rehearsal and premiere of The Nutcracker at Szczecin’s Castle Opera. According to the author, this is not a strictly theatrical photograph, but his work was praised for how it showed the disappearing boundary between different worlds.
The delicateness of the tulle ballet skirt contrasts with the raw and, in a way, temporary character of the backstage area. Ksenia Neumets, the photograph’s subject, seems not to belong to the dark space filled with scattered cardboard boxes. On the left, there is the barely perceptible left wing of the door, resembling a gateway to another world through which the dancer is about to pass. Here, Gamdzyk presented a vestibule leading into theatre that is both a part of the theatrical machine and its aesthetic opposite (especially in the case of the elaborate ballet).
Gramdzyk’s photograph is very precise. Even though we cannot see the face of the dancer who is turned away from the viewer, we are able to sense her focus and the gravity of the situation. This is another example of the artist’s great understanding of the specificity of the body in motion and a testimony to his knowledge of theatre from the inside out.
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Szczecin is also the city where Piotr Nykowski created a set of photographs of the play Bzik: Ostatnia Minuta (Craze: The Last Minute), directed by Ewelina Marciniak. These 10 black-and-white photographs secured Piotr Nykowski the main prize during the 3rd Theatre Photography Contest. The artist is a lighting designer, and his foray into photography began as something spontaneous – he wanted to preserve some memories from his work in Szczecin’s Współczesny Theatre.
During an interview in Radio Szczecin, Nykowski shared that his photography work is immensely helped by his knowledge of the technical aspects of the plays, not to mention his love for theatre. Nykowski’s sensitivity to the nature of theatre production is connected with his personal relationship to his craft. In his own words:
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I am often invited to work during various workshops and rehearsals conducted behind closed doors, which require the photographer to preserve the intimacy and sense of security attached to these closed-off worlds.
Nykowski’s sensitivity resulted in an extremely original visual documentation of Marciniak’s play. His decision to shoot in black-and-white was brave, given that Bzik is a visually impressive show. The reduction of colours to the monochromatic range underlined other elements – the level of expression and the composition most of all.
On the one hand, Nykowski’s documentation goes contrary to what is most characteristic in Marciniak’s theatre, as well as in the visual imagination of Katarzyna Borkowska, who designed the set, lighting, and costumes for the production. On the other, the artist portrayed his own reception and reinterpretation of the show.
The photographs taken during the performance of Bzik resemble, similarly to Warzecha’s work, something from another world – as if they emerged from a disturbing oneiric order, constituting some new show distinct from the play itself. They also combine the on-stage and backstage perspective, stressing the illusion of theatre. Although each frame is different in its expressivity, they are united by a sense of mystery and a visual tranquillity resulting from the monochromatic colour palette.
Nykowski often uses alternative photographic techniques. He is interested in analogue and classical photography, never confining himself to one aesthetic choice or specialty.
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Monika Stolarska says of herself: ‘My photography is not really a documentation of the play. It is my own, authorial view of theatre’. By underlining this perspective, she confirms the status of theatre photographers today, who are more artists than archivists. A single photo placed her among the laureates of the contest organised by the Raszewski Theatre Institute in 2017. As she admits, the winning work was, in fact, created by accident:
I burst into the theatre in the morning, half asleep. I had a cup of coffee in one hand, and I tried to check if I have a memory card in my camera with the other. Then, somewhere in the hallway, I saw a very strange event. Luckily, it turned out that the card was where it was supposed to be, so I quickly took the photo, without even adjusting the settings. And now, it’s the best picture of the season. It’s all the more surprising, because I think that in terms of technique, it’s quite a poor photo.
The picture and the story behind it could be a metaphorical confirmation of the process of the democratisation of theatre photography. Nowadays, we are often presented a behind-the-scenes, spontaneous and personal documentation of the play (or rather, its fragments, afterimages and traces). The theatre resembles a fairy-tale house, where miracles happen and where various, not always friendly spectres roam. But it turns out that access to this place is granted only to the chosen ones – those were granted the privilege to witness the birth of art.
Although the theatrical process is delicate and sensitive, the nature of today’s photography allows us to expand our understanding of the creation of theatre photography. Although Monika Stolarska is a professional photographer, employed by Bydgodszcz’s Polski Theatre, her theatre snapshots are neither her only, nor her main field of work (she mostly documents concerts). The story behind her winning photograph – and the air of spontaneity and accidentality surrounding it – reflect the nature of theatre itself as a momentary and ephemeral event.
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Stolarska’s photo, taken behind the scenes of Michał Borczuch’s Faust, is another example of a non-classical theatre photograph – one that wasn’t taken directly during the performance and never intended to document its progression. Once again, we are faced with a backstage picture, uncovering what is usually not visible.
If not for the context of the photograph, it would be difficult to guess its connection to a theatre play. The plain-looking hallway could have been a school corridor and the character in the photograph a boy spending the recess alone on a bench for some reason. The mysterious nature of the black-and-white picture allows for such interpretations, and the apparent lack of technical refinement (distorted frame, white noise) only strengthens its uncanniness.
The photo appears as if it had been taken abruptly by someone hiding in fear. We cannot see the face of the actor (Robert Wasiewicz), and only after a closer look it is possible to notice that he is staring at his own reflection in a mirror hanging at the end of the hallway. The mundane and everyday character of the scenery contrasts with the peculiar physiognomy of the performer. His artificially lengthened arms and legs deform his silhouette, making them unpleasantly disturbing to look at. Stolarska herself admits that when she saw Wasiewicz in costume, she ‘was not entirely sure if this was a human being’.
Written by Marcelina Obarska, Mar 2019; translated by MW, Apr 2019
Sources: press materials, artist webpages, e-teatr.pl
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